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Matthieu Ricard: Meet Mr Happy
By Robert Chalmers, The Independent, February 18, 2007
US neuroscientists have declared him the happiest man they have ever tested. Now Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk and confidant of the Dalai Lama, has written a book revealing his secret. But can the Frenchman do anything to cheer up our notoriously gloomy writer?
London, UK -- Bring to your mind a past occasion of inner joy and happiness," writes Matthieu Ricard in his new book Happiness: A Guide To Developing Life's Most Important Skill. "Recall how you felt. Consider the lasting effect this experience has had on your mind, and how it still nourishes a sense of fulfilment."
"I would suggest that what you experienced that night was elation. And elation is not really what we mean by happiness. It would be an interesting experiment for you to relive that night, and assess what you actually gained from it."
"You're right," I tell him, remembering how, once the euphoria had worn off, I was left contemplating the same void that has been described by countless sports fans, from Frederick Exley, author of the classic A Fan's Notes, to Doug Stanhope, American comedian and follower of the Boston Red Sox.
"When I woke up the next morning," I tell him, "my head still ached, I was still working for a magazine editor who loathed me, and my laptop was still broken. Now that I come to think about it, Manchester United had done absolutely nothing for me."
"Because elation is a transient thing - not true spiritual fulfilment."
"But if I achieve spiritual fulfilment, will I lose interest in going to Old Trafford?"
"Absolutely not. That's one of the mistakes people make: that a serene, balanced mind is a dull mind. I love football."
Matthieu Ricard, French translator and right-hand man for the Dalai Lama, has been the subject of intensive clinical tests at the University of Wisconsin, as a result of which he is frequently described as the happiest man in the world. It's a somewhat flattering title, he says, given the tiny percentage of the global population who have had their brain patterns monitored by the same state-of-the-art technology, which involves attaching 256 sensors to the skull, and three hours' continuous MRI scanning. The fact remains that, out of hundreds of volunteers whose scores ranged from +0.3 (what you might call the Morrissey zone) to -0.3 (beatific) the Frenchman scored -0.45. He shows me the chart of volunteers' results, on his laptop. To find Ricard, you have to keep scrolling left, away from the main curve, until you eventually find him - a remote dot at the beginning of the x-axis.
"It's true," he concedes, "that I was well outside the normal parameters."
As a young man, Matthieu Ricard, 60, was regarded as one of the most promising biologists of his generation. He completed a starred PhD at the Institut Pasteur under the supervision of Nobel prize-winner François Jacob, but abandoned his scientific career in 1972, when he moved to Darjeeling. There, he devoted himself to studying under Kangyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan master in the Nyingma tradition: the most ancient school of Buddhism. He has been a monk, and celibate, since he was 30. Ricard still lives at the Schechen Monastery in Nepal.
All proceeds from his books go to funding hospitals and schools in Tibet - which makes it feel barely appropriate that we should be meeting in a large apartment in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, an area roughly comparable to Mayfair. The monk explains that the flat - sparsely decorated with Tibetan artwork, and pictures of the Dalai Lama - belongs to a wealthy philanthropist who has moved to the country. Before I met Ricard, who greeted me in his maroon robes, I confess to having harboured some scepticism about his good works. But within minutes of speaking to him, I can tell that the $30m mansion in Malibu, where he secretly retires to snort cocaine off the thighs of Lithuanian hookers, in the tradition of innumerable TV evangelists, cannot conceivably exist. In the foreword to Happiness, the psychologist Dr Daniel Goleman describes how a three-hour wait at an airport "sped by in minutes, due to the sheer pleasure of Matthieu's orbit" - a phrase which had made me faintly nauseous when I first read it. Now, it seems to make perfect sense. Ricard exudes a sense of tranquillity, kindness and - surprisingly enough - humour.
Versatility has been the keynote in his life. An outstanding goalkeeper in his youth, Matthieu Ricard also enjoys an international reputation as a photographer, and was lauded by Cartier-Bresson. He shows me pictures he's taken of the idyllic view from his hermitage. Having myself been described by Private Eye as "journaliste misérable" - harshly I think, given that, of the "84,000 negative emotions" described in Buddhist teaching, there are at least a dozen that I haven't yet experienced - I feel obliged to concede to Ricard that I may have something to learn from him.
"On the other hand," I ask the monk, "how hard is it to be happy when you live on a mountainside with breathtaking views of the Himalayas, where your only concern is polishing your wind chimes? What if you had my life, living in the shadow of the new Arsenal stadium, the streets crowded with vengeful Cockney van drivers, the supermarkets staffed by cashiers who pass on the oppression of their wretched existence by drumming their fingers and flinging goods down the checkout at a speed that would have tested Peter Schmeichel in his prime? Not that I'm saying you'd be any happier where I grew up in Manchester, where two of my three uncles have been fired at with Uzis..."
"What," Ricard interrupts, "is an Uzi?"
"It's a machine gun."
"Ah." The monk pauses. "I understand what you're saying. I believe that, if I had to live where you live, I could. By choice, I would not move there. But if you allow exterior circumstances to determine your state of mind, then of course you will suffer; you become like a sponge, or like a chameleon. I have lived in difficult areas. I lived in Old Delhi for almost a year. That really is a miserable place. And yet sometimes I felt so light there. It was like - how can I put this - different weather."
Happiness is a remarkable book, untainted by the pretentious tone of many works that offer life-enhancing advice - even if one of the reviews quoted on its first page praises Matthieu Ricard for locating "the chambers of the mind where serenity resides". ("In the wardrobe of my soul," I can hear the late Vivian Stanshall singing. "In the section labelled 'Shirts'.")
Developing happiness, Ricard argues, is a skill. Most people exist like beggars, "unaware of the treasure buried beneath their shack". We can develop our potential as if "polishing a nugget" and eventually (omega) achieve happiness, "like a bird soaring into the sky when his cage is opened".
Ricard's book exudes inspiration and intelligence, qualities embodied in its author. Even so, I tell him, one line that resonates with me is a quotation from the critic Dominique Noguez, who argues that misery is more interesting than contentment: "Because it has a seductive intensity, and the attraction of always leaving something to anticipate: happiness."
"What other things," Ricard asks now, "make you happy?"
"I don't know... a half case of Jaboulet's Parallèle 45 Côtes du Rhône with friends, over prawn dhansak..."
"What you're describing is a lull; a calm in the storm. You have to identify what it is in that situation that makes you happy. It's as though you're making a journey, and you look in your rucksack to find it half filled with provisions, half with stones. You need to take out the stones and put in more provisions."
"No. What I'm saying is that these interludes - of alcohol, or physical exercise - give a hint of what life could be like, if you changed the balance of your mind, instead of altering external circumstances." A laboratory rat, he says, given access to a "pleasure bar" that stimulates euphoria in the brain, will keep pressing the lever until it dies of starvation.
Ricard is a highly unusual figure in that - by contrast with the unquestioning, some would say credulous, nature of many believers - he has brought the scientific rigour of his early life to his faith: first in the form of his translations of texts from Tibetan (the language in which he normally communicates) then, more recently, in his contribution to the question of whether science can accurately map an individual's mental equilibrium.
He was assessed in a programme headed by the cognitive scientist Professor Richard K Davidson, principal of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Davidson is one of the world's leading investigators in the field of neuroplasticity: the comparatively recent discovery that the brain is constantly evolving in response to experience, and that such evolution can be represented in a scan, then quantified.
"The relationship between the left and right cortex of the brain can be measured," says Ricard, "and the relationship between them faithfully represents the subject's temperament." Heightened activity on the left, he says, is associated with pleasant emotions; bias to the right indicates negativity and depression.
"In these tests," he explains, "all the meditators were outside the standard curve. Statistically, they fell into in a tight, well-defined group. Even though they came from different backgrounds: a Tibetan nomad, a young French boy, an academic. They all came in a cluster. That's the point. If it was just me, it could have been a fluke."
"Isn't there an inherited predisposition to gloom?"
"It's true that a difference in mental balance can be demonstrated in children aged two. So now you're going to ask, what's the point? It's this: the important thing with mind training - probably a more useful term than meditation - is that you change your own base line. This is very different from the temporary sensation of feeling good that you might experience when you watch a Marx Brothers film. What you have to do is raise that base line."
Matthieu Ricard was born into a family that could hardly have been better-connected. His mother, Yahne Le Toumelin - who has become a Buddhist nun herself - is an abstract artist, praised by André Breton in his 1957 study, Surrealism and Painting. His father, Jean-François Revel, who died last year, was one of France's most celebrated philosophical authors and journalists. Matthieu attended the private Parisian Lycée Janson-de-Sailly; fellow alumni include Jean Gabin, Valerie Giscard d'Estaing and Lionel Jospin. He was 16 when he first had lunch with Stravinsky.
His father was less than delighted when Matthieu (influenced by films on Tibetan Buddhism, made by his friend Arnaud Desjardins) abandoned his studies and left for India. In 1998, father and son published a series of dialogues, The Monk and the Philosopher, which sold almost 500,000 copies in France, and is one of the most brilliantly informative works of modern philosophy ever written.
Happiness, a more accessible book, contains simple exercises designed to help the reader achieve the same sort of composure that radiates from Ricard himself. "Anger," he says, "is a destructive emotion, which reduces us to puppets."
"Have you never lost it?"
"Occasionally," Ricard says. "In the 1980s I got my first laptop. I used it to translate Tibetan texts. A friend tossed flour on to the keyboard, as a joke. When he saw I was really angry, he said: 'One moment of anger can destroy years of patience.'" Psychological studies, Ricard argues, "contradict the notion that giving free rein to the emotions relieves bottled-up tension."
"Staying with laptop rage," I tell him, "I had an Apple that was constantly crashing. In the end, I took it into the back garden and kicked it to pieces." Like my friend Ralph Steadman who recently put a pickaxe through his fax machine, I explain, I felt much better for it. "Then with my next laptop - a Toshiba whose screen was forever whiting out - I tried to do the right thing. I posted it with a civil letter to Mr Walker at Toshiba's PR company. He never returned the machine, or replied to my subsequent correspondence. This has left me subject to feelings of real loathing towards Mr Walker, which can surface at any time of the night or day. Are you absolutely sure that mindless vandalism can never be good?"
"I think this is an example where cognitive therapy could be very good for you," Ricard replies. "Your problem is that you imagine Mr Walker had something against you personally. The truth is that he had (omega) nothing against you at all. He was probably overworked. If something is not going to happen, you have to leave it at peace. Let it go."
"I know you had another laptop stolen not so long ago, when you were travelling in India."
"I didn't feel aggrieved at all," Ricard says, adding that his only regret was that he hadn't been able to send the thief the power lead.
But where does such passivity lead, I ask Ricard, in less trivial circumstances?
"Let's say, for the sake of argument," I continue, "that you live in a country governed by a man who has betrayed every principle he ever professed to believe in, who habitually lies, who has sent innocent citizens to die in illegal combat he wouldn't choose to engage in himself, and who accepts the hospitality of at least one world leader who is shamelessly corrupt. What's the correct response to that behaviour?"
"To expose it," says Ricard. "It's important to have a desire for honesty and truth. But in a practical way. Not through hatred."
"To take a well-worn example: if you'd found yourself armed and alone in a room with Hitler at Berchtesgaden in 1937..."
"I'd have shot him, certainly. If there was no other way. Because it would have alleviated greater suffering. Somebody once asked the Dalai Lama what he'd do if someone came in wanting to murder everyone in the room. He replied: 'I'd begin by shooting at his legs. If that didn't work, I'd move up to his head.'"
"He has a sense of irony, then."
"Does he watch the Marx Brothers too?"
"He doesn't have to. His life is so full of humour. Although I think he used to watch Mash."
My own limited knowledge of Buddhism, I tell Ricard, relates to the life of Chogyam Trungpa, who was one of Allen Ginsberg's mentors. Trungpa, who died of cirrhosis in 1982 aged 48, was responsible for helping to popularise the religion in Britain. A notorious alcoholic and philanderer whose spiritual reputation suffered a public setback when, drunk at the wheel of his sports car, he crashed into a joke shop on the outskirts of Dumfries. Just as Christianity is symbolised by the crucifixion, for me, until now, just the mention of Buddhism has evoked the image of a robed figure lying semi-conscious among pieces of dashboard, whoopee cushions and chattering teeth.
"Trungpa was extremely unconventional, as you suggest. He never tried to hide his behaviour. I never met him. I would not take him as my teacher."
The fundamentally unconfrontational philosophy of Buddhism, Ricard says, will triumph in the end.
"If you have a society of selfish people, combined one-to-one with altruistic people, theoretically the altruists should be wiped out. But altruists can co-operate. Which gives them a strong advantage. That is the cause of hope."
"Hope's the right word, because I don't see the world getting any better."
"It may look that way on the news," Ricard replies, "but every serious study indicates a decrease in the number of deaths in armed conflict. At the time of Napoleon, the Spanish took French soldiers and nailed them between planks. It was the most terrible death."
"Fair enough, but... they were French."
"They were..." Ricard extinguishes the hint of a smile. "The point is that I do believe there is an increased tendency towards compassion."
"Every conflict has its source in hatred. Once the forest is on fire, you're not dealing with how to extinguish the spark. Of course you can't go and teach meditation in the midst of genocide, say. But in the future, perhaps we can shift people's thinking to discourage such developments. People don't blow themselves up for no reason. Changes of mind build slowly, out of discontent, greed and neglect. These things have to be addressed before hatred is fully blown."
Like the Dalai Lama himself, Ricard says, he is an ardent follower of the BBC World Service, and BBC News 24.
And yet watching live reportage is hardly conducive to happiness. When, I ask Ricard - it's a question which, as I confess to him, makes me squirm slightly, but I don't think it's irrelevant in this context - did he last weep?
"I cried recently because of... what was it? I remember it was an item on the television news, about people who had suffered a lot. I believe it had to do with abuse. I cried for a long time."
We talk for two or three hours, into the early evening. I'm struck by how much better-known Ricard might have become had he applied his wit to his father's trade, in philosophy and journalism; and how much more impressive he'd have been than France's best-known contemporary intellectual, Bernard-Henri Lévy. Lévy, who has proved more susceptible than most to the charm of his own ego, recently claimed to have developed stigmata, and last year received his seventh cream pie in the face from the Belgian Nöel Godin, who has made it his life's work to subvert the immaculately preened thinker.
As it is, there's only one moment in our conversation when Ricard risks his karma by addressing current affairs in a waspish spirit. It happens when I ask him if he has even been tempted to write political articles.
"I have. Because you turn on the radio, and you hear Jeb Bush saying he is suspending capital punishment for a month because it took one man 20 minutes to die. And then you hear [Socialist presidential candidate] Ségolène Royal say: 'I admire Chinese justice because it is swift.' Well, she's right there. For sure," says Ricard, who has spent much of his life attempting to repair the consequences of that nation's brutal assaults on Tibet. "Chinese justice. It's swift."
By the time I leave, he has persuaded me of the benefits to be gained from forgiving my enemies - and I think I can forgive them, with the possible exceptions of Mr Walker and that bouncer at the Borderline.
And yet, I tell him, I know that, in terms of happiness, my nugget remains unpolished, my bird still caged.
"And as for the treasure buried under my shack - I'm not even sure I remember where my shack is. Apart from working with the meditation exercises in Happiness, what should I do next?"
"There's a programme called MBSR: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at Massachusetts University. They have produced a range of excellent tapes. But ultimately, it's how your mind relates to the world that determines whether you're miserable or not. You have to ask yourself: is my happiness dependent on other people?"
It's dark by the time I leave Ricard's borrowed apartment. Walking back into the streets of the city feels like re-entering another reality, a bit like coming out of a cinema to find that night has fallen. I have an appointment with a French journalist friend at a brasserie in north-eastern Paris. During the evening, a fellow diner who has clearly been pulling on the rat pleasure bar - which, in his case, takes the form of half litres of Stella Artois with Armagnac chasers - for a number of hours, makes the bold but mistaken decision to launch into solo renditions of anthems in praise of Olympique de Marseille. An ugly confrontation ensues, involving supporters of Paris Saint Germain.
I wonder if Matthieu Ricard would have sought to intervene in the ensuing fracas, at the height of which I'd guess that the Marseille supporter, had he been asked whether his happiness depended on other people, would have had a word or two to say. I couldn't ask Ricard about this because he was across town, finessing his Tibetan aid programme. If he had been here, I'm sure this remarkable man would have thought of something. That said, I think even Ricard would acknowledge that - contagious though his patience, compassion and serenity are - it may be some time before they are espoused quite so enthusiastically by the wider world. s
'Happiness: A Guide To Developing Life's Most Important Skill', is published by Atlantic Books